Locals advocate for housing protections, rent freezes beyond eviction moratorium

At the start of the pandemic, several people banded together to form Rent Zero Kansas — a fair housing advocate network of groups from towns and cities across the state. “Having a comprehensive rent and mortgage cancellation is a way to sort of freeze the economy in place,” said Rent Zero advocate Vince Munoz. Above, the leasing office for the downtown Overland Park apartment building The Vue.

At the start of the pandemic, several people banded together to form a fair housing advocate network of groups from towns and cities across the state. Everyone works together — virtually of course — to cancel rent, said Christina Ostmeyer, leader with Rent Zero Kansas.

“We are a community organizing organization that is working to build power to create the world that we deserve. So that’s by putting pressure on systems by advocating,” Ostmeyer said.

Sheltering in place has been a major component of flattening the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, but being evicted could hinder someone’s ability to do so. Reinstating the moratorium on evictions in the state, which expired more than a month ago, isn’t enough, Vince Munoz, an advocate with Rent Zero Kansas, said.

“The moratorium was an important first step but we needed a total rent and mortgage cancellation, because you know people are incurring debt. Even if they can’t be evicted they still owe the money,” Munoz said.

In Johnson County, as is the case across the state and the country, economies are struggling to cope with the financial impacts of the pandemic. In April, the county-wide unemployment rate was record-breaking.

Housing in Johnson County is also some of the most expensive in the state, per a 2019 study from the University of Kansas’ Institute for Policy & Social Research. 

“Having a comprehensive rent and mortgage cancellation is a way to sort of freeze the economy in place,” Munoz said. “It’s a policy that makes a lot of sense like it’s really not as radical as people think it is, and doing nothing itself is a policy and it’s a policy that requires the people who have the least amount of wealth to pay for the crisis.”

When it comes down to it, Munoz said, someone will end up footing the bill for this pandemic — it doesn’t need to be renters.

“Currently renters are being asked to pay for the crisis, a rent and mortgage cancellation would say we’re all in this together, it would distribute the cost of this crisis … evenly across our economy in a fair, equitable way,” Munoz said.

Some people might think it’s a big ask, but it’s not, Tanith Kartman, organizer for Rent Zero Kansas, said.

“What we’re working towards is homes-guaranteed, that everybody is guaranteed a house. We live in the richest nation in the world — there’s no reason why we can’t provide homes for everyone,” Kartman said.

People dealing with housing problems or a pending eviction can reach out to Johnson County Kansas Legal Services for guidance and possibly legal support by calling 913-621-0200 or visiting the website.